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Chopper wreckage found following horror blaze, then crash

The wreckage from a missing helicopter that was fighting a Far North blaze has been found.  The helicopter disappeared while helping fight a scrub fire north east of Kaitaia.  A Department of Conservation worker and long-time Far North pilot were on the chopper and there has been no word on their condition.

Rescue Co-ordination Centre spokesman James Sygrove said the wreckage was found at about 6.40am today in the water offshore, where the helicopter was last known to be.

A fishing boat involved in the search found an oil slick on the water.

“They subsequently sent down a diver to investigate and he identified the source of the slick as a helicopter that matches the description of the missing one,” Mr Sygrove told APNZ.

“He was unable to get into it or close enough to identify if there were any casualties involved so we can’t confirm that at the moment.”

Police would now be responsible for identifying whether there were any casualties and recovering the wreckage.

The wreckage was thought to be submerged at a depth of about seven metres.

Two helicopters, from Whangarei and Auckland, were called to the area last night but only one could take part in the search because the other was not equipped with night vision equipment.

Both helicopters took part in the search from daylight today.

A land search and rescue coordination team arrived about 2am and conducted operations on the ground with assistance from police.

The two crash victims were conducting a reconnaissance flight over a fiercely burning scrub fire on the Karikari Peninsula, 40km northest of Kaitaia, and were about 350 metres off the coast when they disappeared around 10pm.

Police northern communications spokesman Inspector Matt Rogers said the EPIRB beacon, which raises an alarm if the helicopter crashes, had not been activated.

‘Pretty bloody scary’

Meanwhile Fire Service northern communications spokesman Tony McDonald said one crew continued to battle the fire overnight with the aim of containing it.

The fire had reached the water at Matai Bay, which was acting as a fire break.

Five people escaped the flames by fleeing into the water last night and were rescued by the Coastguard.

A sixth person was feared missing after the fire broke out about 7pm. That person was located later.

Mr McDonald urged anyone who felt threatened by the fire to evacuate their house.

The fire has already destroyed two homes.

Ground crews are trying to contain it, but the Fire Service says there’s the potential for it to spread into an area containing more houses.

People who think they may be in any danger are being urged to leave as soon as possible.

A Matai Bay Rd resident, who asked not to be named, lives 2km from the blaze and drove over to see it with his own eyes.

“My mate’s house has burnt down. The fire was massive and it was so windy and scary, fanning the flames. The entire cape is burnt down. It’s pretty bloody scary, windy as, blowing it all over the show. The fire is still going, it’s crazy.”

By midnight, more than 40 hectares of trees and scrub at the end of the Karikari Peninsula was alight but firefighters were unable to extinguish it because it had become “too dark and dangerous” with a strong easterly wind fanning the blaze, said Fire Service spokesman Scott Osmond.

The total number of people evacuated from their homes was unknown last night, but at least five people fled into the sea in fear of being engulfed by flames on land.

“They are all safe and unhurt,” Mr Osmond said.

Earlier, there were fears one person was missing, but they were soon found.

Evacuees were taken to the Karikari Community Hall, which was being used as a welfare point.

John Beachman, of the Northern Rural Fire Authority, said late last night that the fire “had done its run” and stopped at the coastline, so firefighters were able to concentrate on the edges.

“It’s travelled a couple of hundred metres. It’s quite intense. The spread of the fire has massively diminished because it’s not running.”

He said firefighters would continue to use monsoon buckets to douse the blaze, which would burn through the night.

Second fire in a fortnight

Mr Beachman said the fire started near Matai Bay Rd, but it was too early to say whether it was suspicious.

“We always investigate these things. The ignition point has been identified by police, so that will be looked at closely by investigators.”

Two weeks ago, firefighters battled for more than three days to contain another major scrub fire on the Karikari Peninsula.

The fire was thought to be suspicious. At the time, Principal Rural Fire Officer Miles Taylor said it was part of a worrying trend in the area.

The earlier blaze threatened campers and baches at Karikari Beach and Maitai Bay.

Flames quickly spread through coastal scrubland, reaching the road and then jumping across into a paddock above Maitai Bay. Mr Taylor said at the time that arson and nuisance fires were taking a mounting toll on Far North communities.

His greatest concern was that sooner or later a wildfire might result in serious harm or death.

“We’ve been really lucky so far, but I think it’s only a matter of time,” he said.

“Wildfires can quickly spread into places where people are living, or recreating.

“I’m really worried about what will happen if we don’t get on top of this issue.”

In Karikari, a fire permit is required at all times, unless a total fire ban is in place.

–, Herald staff, APNZ and Newstalk ZB



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